Dealing with Aggressive People at Work


We all encounter aggressive personalities throughout our lives. We are often able to avoid people we clash with. However, when these people are our employees or coworkers we can not simply avoid them. Avoiding aggression can create a toxic work environment and decrease team cohesion and communication.

Learning how to deal with these people in an emotionally intelligent manner will make life much easier and improve the workplace atmosphere. Aggression can be turned into cooperation and condescension can become respect.

Here are some strategies for effectively understanding and dealing with aggressive people in the workplace:

Emotional Intelligence

Being aware of our own emotions and the emotions of others can help us effectively manage professional relationships by adapting our behaviour accordingly.  Dan Goleman, one of the preeminent researchers on emotional intelligence says that EQ is four times more important than IQ when it comes to success at work and in relationships.

Validate First

Aggression is one of the by-products of the fight or flight response - the physiological reaction to a perceived threat in our environment. When a person perceives a situation in a threatening way a message is sent to a part of that person’s brain called the amygdala which tells the person to fight or run away. When a person is in ‘fight or flight’ mode they are responding with a more primitive, emotional part of the brain. While this function is great for survival it is not great for rational thought. When we are operating on instinct we don’t want to be distracted from too many thoughts, so the more logical, thinking part of our brain shuts down. As a result, when a person is acting aggressively, they are less likely to engage with others in a rational manner.

When dealing with someone in an aggressive state the first thing we need to do is take the person out of fight or flight mode and re-engage their rational mind. The best thing to do is make them feel heard. In doing so we quieten the amygdala. This can be accomplished by validating the person’s emotions by saying things like ‘I understand that this is frustrating for you…’ This will help the person re-engage their rational mind and move on to problem solving.

Ask Rather Than Tell

Once an aggressive person has calmed down and is ready to engage in problem solving it is important to ask rather than tell. Telling the person what to do may put them on the defense again. The best way to engage them in problem solving is by asking the person an open-ended question with your end goal in mind. For example, if your end goal is to get the person to provide more effective feedback to the team when they have not been wanting to communicate you might say ‘I can imagine that the team’s behaviour has been frustrating or annoying for you. How do you think you can provide more effective feedback?’

Regulate Your Own Emotions

When dealing with an aggressive person it is equally important to regulate your own emotions. Raising your voice will only escalate the situation. By talking in a low and slow voice the other person will be more inclined to slow down their breathing and reduce their volume.

Define Value-Driven Competencies

As a leader you can define competencies for the behaviour you would like to cultivate within your employees. It is helpful to catch good behaviours in action no matter how small they may be. Leading edge performance management is much more about a coaching framework than a punitive one. This is built on the premise of ‘what we focus on grows’. Focus on positive behaviours that are aligned to your team or organisational values.

Use the XYZ Strategy

Neither passive nor aggressive communication will help us reach peak performance. Use the XYZ technique: I feel X when you do Y in situation Z. For example ‘I feel disappointed when you didn’t follow through when you told me you would.’ Avoid beginning the exercise with an accusation or judgement such as ‘you are…’, ‘you should…’, or ‘you need to…’ Statements such as these put the listener on the defensive and make them less likely to be open minded. When in a heated argument with someone it is best to let the other person do most of the talking.

Emphasise Points of Agreement

First impressions count. Do not begin by discussing subjects you and an aggressive person may not agree on. Begin by emphasising points of agreement and keep emphasising those throughout the conversation. Stress that you are both striving for the same end.

Stop Pause Play

Use empathy and try to see things from the other person’s perspective. By using the Stop Pause Play method, also known as the Stop Observe Respond method, you will better be able to understand where the person is coming from and address them accordingly.

Knowing how to handle aggressive, intimidating people in the workplace means mastering the art of communication. Learning these skills is essential for effective leadership and will have positive impact on professional relationships as well as personal ones.

How do you react to aggression in the workplace?